You’ve Got Male

By Matthew Brelis '80

After more than a century of all-female education—as well as a brief flirtation with coeducation thanks to a group of young men admitted to the college under the GI Bill® following World War II—Vassar contemplated a bold change that would chart a new direction for the college: full coeducation. A possible merger with Yale loomed, but ultimately, Vassar pursued coeducation of its own accord. It proved a defining moment in the history of the college, one that had a lasting impact on the alumnae and alumni who attended during those transitional years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and one which forever redefined the Vassar experience.

When I was dropped off at my freshman room in Main in August of 1976 I should have felt like a pioneer. After all, coeducation—the single most important undertaking in the college’s history after its founding—was in its infancy. But I was simply unnerved by the prospect of not knowing anyone on campus. I had been urged to apply to Vassar by my high school guidance counselor for two reasons: I was interested in drama, and, as a male, I would have a better chance of getting into an elite liberal arts college that, to borrow a slogan, was looking for “a few good men.” I suspect a number of the 252 other males who matriculated that year had applied for similar reasons.

“My application to Vassar was made totally by chance,” writes classmate Blair Bess ’80. “I distinctly remember saying to my guidance counselor, ‘Well, if they’ve only been co-ed for six years, they may still be looking for men. And Vassar would definitely be the best college I’ve applied to.’ I’d come from a home with a single mom, a family of feisty strong women, and my closest friends were all girls. How could I go wrong?’’

If there was one moment in which the notion that I was at a former women’s college was crystallized, it was the publication in the fall of 1976 and the subsequent contretemps over the Admissions Office promotional brochure “Vassar for men?’’ A smiling Tim Connolly ’78 wearing a gray T-shirt with VASSAR in pink letters graced the cover. Beneath him were cartoon characters, men from Harvard and Yale laughing, and a buxom woman waving “hello.”

No one, it seemed, liked it. Women were outraged that the brochure ignored Vassar’s glorious history as the nation’s first great liberal arts college established for women. Some men thought it failed to accurately capture the “Vassar Man”—if there is such an entity. The controversy faded quickly along with the brochure.

More than a generation of students has gone through the Main Gate since “Vassar for men?” and perceptions have changed—at least in the young. “There really is not a need for something like that brochure today,’’ David Borus, dean of Admission and Financial Aid, told me recently. “I have been here 15 years and I see less and less of the ‘Gee, Vassar, isn’t that a girls' school?’ We still get it on occasion at an admissions fair from a parent or grandparent, but the kid will say, ‘Come on, Dad!’”

“No one ever asked the admissions reps from Williams or Amherst, ‘Isn’t that a men’s school?’’’ Dean Borus says. “I think our society made it more difficult for young men to go to a college that used to be for women than vice versa.”

Students commemorate coeducation during a local parade.

Alumni my age still get the occasional puzzled look from people when they find out where we went to college, but the lingering notion of Vassar as a women’s college might have more to do with Vassar’s remarkable history and less to do with the awareness of the person asking the question. Vassar should not only be remembered as the first college of its kind in the world—a place where women could receive a liberal arts education that had been offered only to men—it should be celebrated.

Vassar has moved way beyond its foray into coeducation, even if all of the world has not. Thirty-six graduating classes have gone out into the world since the Class of 1974 (the first coed class with males matriculating as freshmen). Many alumni find their Vassar experience prepared them and benefited them in ways they could not have foreseen, such as imparting the ability to relate to women in the workplace with an ease that perhaps came from accepting women as equals while on campus. I imagine that had Vassar merged with Yale, settling on a few acres in New Haven, it would have been subsumed by that institution and would exist today in name only, maybe a glorified think tank as Radcliffe is today.

Since the 1970s, the college has described its coeducation as co-equal. But that is much more than a marketing phrase. A Miscellany News review of student offices found that more than half of the student body presidents from 1970 though 2008 were women and nearly 70 percent of the vice presidents were women. “At a lot of the New England colleges that went coed, 10 or 15 years later, women were second class citizens,’’ says Borus. “That has not been the case here.’’

As Vassar Historian Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41 and Professor Emeritus Clyde Griffen note in their book Full Steam Ahead in Poughkeepsie: The Story of Coeducation at Vassar 1966-1974, change has always been a part of the institution. Matthew Vassar was aware in the 1860s that the institution he founded needed to adapt to the times if it was to remain a leader. He compared the institution to a tree—dead branches needed to be pruned and grafting might be required—not to kill, but to encourage new growth. 

Vassar has stayed true to this innovative heritage simply by moving on. Coeducation is no longer a burning issue on campus, instead the college is focused on affordability. The constant for Vassar is its ability to be the soil where personal worlds take shape, where roots are planted, and where meaningful lives are produced.

Matthew Brelis ’80 is the fourth generation—and first male—in his family to attend Vassar. (He dropped his freshman daughter, Maggie, off on campus last summer.) Brelis has worked at the Boston Globe and Pittsburgh Press, where his work was honored with a Pulitzer Prize. He is now director of media relations for the Massachusetts Port Authority. He lives with his wife, Morgan [Baker-Brelis ’80], their younger daughter, Elinor, and three Portuguese Water Dogs.